The list of states with some form of legal marijuana continues to grow. But because pot remains illegal under federal law, most banks won’t offer services to cannabis businesses.
Now, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley is sponsoring a bill that would remove key barriers that keep most marijuana businesses operating only in cash.
Most banks say the high cost of complying with the complex federal rules for dealing with cannabis businesses isn’t worth it. They also fear that banking regulators could accuse them of laundering drug money.
In a telephone press conference, Tyson Hayworth – owner of two Portland marijuana dispensaries – says he just got dropped by his most recent bank.
"As we all sit here talking about this," Hayworth says, "my staff is scrambling trying to figure out how we’re going to make payroll over the next pay cycle because now we don’t have any way to issue checks."
Senator Merkley says forcing these businesses to operate on cash opens a host of potential problems.
"It increases the risk of theft," Merkley says. "It increases the risk of money laundering. It increases the risk of organized crime."
Merkley’s bill would prevent banking regulators from penalizing banks for dealing with marijuana-related businesses. It would also protect banks from prosecution and civil forfeiture.
Among the co-sponsors of Merkley’s bill are Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul.
A similar bill two years ago failed to get traction. But Merkley says as more states liberalize their marijuana laws, support for his bill is growing.